News & Features » Cover Story

Joanna Cirillo, 33

Nurse supervisor at Richmond City Health district and COVID operations manager

Hard times bring out the best people.

In his nomination letter, former Style Weekly Richmonder of the Year, Dr. Danny Avula, describes Cirillo as “the lifeblood of Richmond and Henrico’s COVID-19 response." He notes that she was involved in nearly all aspects of the fight against the pandemic from the very first days over two years ago, from setting up a call center to case investigation and contract tracing, to mass vaccination events and pop-ups.

“Tens of thousands of people across our region have been vaccinated and are safer and healthier in large part because of Joanna’s leadership and attention to every possible detail,” Avula wrote. “This work has also been incredibly stressful and exhausting, and Joanna is somehow always calm, confident, and ready for what’s next. I’m in awe of her, and I can’t wait to see what else she can make possible as a public health leader during and beyond the pandemic.”

Originally from New Jersey, Cirillo’s been in Richmond for four years and says she got lucky by landing the exact public health job she wanted. A strategic thinker, she is people-centered in her approach. “I have a deep belief that access to equality and affordable healthcare is a right, not a privilege, for all people,” she says, noting this is what initially motivated her to go into the public health field. Formerly, she was program coordinator for the Gulf War Illness Research Consortium at Boston University. “If we protect everyone regardless of their income or citizenship status, that really only benefits us as a whole community,” she points out.

Locally, Cirillo has worked closely with community organizations such as Second Baptist Church to stand up community hub vaccination sites that provide residents with a convenient, familiar place to learn about and receive the vaccine. Even though it was difficult to keep the focus on health equity when everyone wanted access to tests and vaccines at the same time, she feels they managed to keep their goals and values at the forefront. For example, two summers ago almost all the cases were in Spanish-speaking communities, so they specifically hired Spanish-speaking helpers and tracers often from those communities; they were also one of the first health departments to set-up walk-up testing (everyone else was doing drive-ups). They also reached out to the elderly and those without internet access. In May 2021, Cirillo was recognized by The Washington Post's Star Nurse Spotlight for her pandemic response work.

Cirillo thinks Virginia did pretty well regarding its vaccination numbers, noting that 20% of Virginians have some natural immunity while 70% have been fully vaccinated. She credits deploying a lot of different modalities from grocery store testing to faith-based organizations, while emphasizing that “community health workers, who are integrated into the community, were critical to our success.”

Looking to the future, she thinks there will be a lot of health problems because of people missing regular check-ups over the last two years, sadly -- but also some positive systemic changes. “There will definitely be more knowledge, attention and funding for the field of public health after this," she points out. "Which will only help us respond better to future public health crises that aren’t just infectious disease.”

Foremost, she hopes that what people take away from the pandemic is that we are all interconnected, and that if we take care and protect all people in our community, it’s better for all of us.